What is Cyclospora, anyway?

If you’ve looked at the news at all in recent weeks, you’ve most likely seen headlines about an outbreak of the parasite Cyclospora. Over 400 people have gotten sick due to an outbreak associated with pre-made salad mixes.

But what is Cyclospora? What does it mean to have eaten a pathogenic parasite? Unlike some of the most well-known foodborne pathogens, like Salmonella, E. coli and Listeria, Cyclospora isn’t a bacterium — it’s a parasite.

Cyclospora cayetanensis is the full name of the single-cell parasite involved in the recent outbreak. A parasite is an organism that lives on or in a host, which gets sustenance at the expense of said host. Malaria is another major disease caused by a parasite.

Symptoms appear about a week or two after Cyclospora infects the small intestine. Fatigue, bloating, diarrhea, loss of appetite and cramps are all common symptoms. Most people recover under an antibiotic in a few days, though symptoms are sometimes reported to come and go, and some people never report any symptoms at all. As with any foodborne illness, very young children, elderly people and those with weakened immune systems face a higher risk of serious infection.

The infection spreads when people consume food or water contaminated with parasite-harboring feces, so you aren’t likely to get it from another person. It’s most common in subtropical and tropical parts of the world.

If you come down with an infection from Cyclospora, the most important thing you can do is stay hydrated, because you can lose a lot of fluids from the symptoms.

Prevention

None of the above sounds very fun. You can reduce your risk of infection by washing your hands with soap and water before and after handing fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as raw meat. Wash everything that comes into contact with your food as well — cutting boards, dishes, utensil, etc.

You can also reduce risks by washing all fruits and vegetables thoroughly under warm water, scrubbing firmly. Refrigerate your prepared food within two hours of preparation, because your chilly fridge will slow the growth of microorganisms.

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